Spring.

The last day of April was my first time in the booth. “The Booth” is what my memoir class calls it when it’s your turn to have pages workshopped. You go around the room and one at a time, each one of your classmates gives you feedback on your writing. You’re not allowed to say anything, not allowed to explain or defend your work. You just listen, as though you’re in a soundproof booth. The instructor goes last.

For my first booth, I had written just six pages, the tiniest slice of my life detailing two incidents: one, my father’s near drowning when I was a child, and two, a flight from Los Angeles to Seattle where a stranger asked me some very pointed and very none-of-your-business type questions about my family in general and my mother’s death in particular and I lied, blatantly, to her face.

That experience on the plane was not the first time I’ve told a lie. In fact, I’ve told many, many lies over the last several years. The biggest and most frequent lie I’ve told is that I’m OK. I’ve told it to strangers to make them comfortable. I’ve told it to friends and family to keep them from worrying about me. And I’ve told it to myself because I wanted to believe it. Because I’m so, so tired of not being OK.

As we wrapped up the booth session, my instructor closed her comments by saying, “I just want to tell you how sorry I am. To absorb so much loss at such a young age is painful, and wrong, and I wish it wasn’t so.” And because I wasn’t allowed to say anything, this time I didn’t lie and tell her I was OK. I just listened, and took it in. And then I got on the subway and went home, crawled into bed, and slept until dinner.

It’s not easy to admit that I’m a liar, not easy to admit that the way I want to see myself is different than the way I am. I don’t want to complain, and I don’t want to be sad. I want to be a survivor, rather than a victim.

And in truth, I am a survivor. I have survived a great many things. I have survived my mother looking at me with vacant eyes and telling me she wanted to die. I have survived the knowledge that I was unable to keep her from dying. I have survived the months of constant fear over what would happen to my terminally ill father, living alone in a house he refused to leave. I have survived the guilt over the relief I felt when he died, because it meant I would no longer have to worry about him.

And speaking of guilt, I have survived the wrenching guilt over the fact that I left the person I promised to love forever, because I cared less about his pain than I did about being free. I have survived the guilt that I didn’t grieve for my grandmother as she succumbed to advanced Alzheimer’s disease, because I blamed her years of cruelty and emotional abuse for breaking down my mother’s fragile psyche and leading her to turn to alcohol in the first place.

I have survived the death of the sweetest man I’ve ever known, my Grandpa Gerry, survived the hospice nurses telling me he could bleed out in front of me, or that there might not be enough morphine to keep him from pain. I have survived dark nights of the soul, survived not being able to get up off my apartment floor for days at a time, survived my own broken heart.

But what does all this survival mean? There’s nothing particularly noble or admirable about it. It simply means I stayed alive, because as terrible as staying alive was, it was better than the alternative.

My, “I’m gonna sell all my stuff, move to New York and start over,” move was an act of rebellion against all these years of surviving. I wanted to do more than just survive. I wanted to thrive. I wanted to change my life. No matter how many people told me how hard New York was going to be, I didn’t care. After all I’ve been through, I told myself, this will be easy.

It wasn’t. For the first time I realized the comfort in living in a place where people know you, where they share your history. No one knows me here. And in a city of so many people, so many of whom are suffering, my problems seem small and insignificant. I seem small and insignificant.

The truth is, I’m ashamed of myself. I’ve been given the gift of survival, and what have I done with it? I’ve squandered opportunities and time. I’ve spent money I’ve inherited from my parents foolishly, hoping that “treating myself,” would make me feel better. I’ve been spoiled and selfish, spent far too much time feeling sorry for myself. I’ve been called brave and I haven’t deserved it.

Last Sunday, I woke to the most glorious day. It was cloudy, but not rainy, with a gentle breeze and the slightest chill in the air. I sat in the arm chair of my living room, windows open, curtains parted. And for the first time, I noticed that the formerly barren trees climbing upwards toward my eighth-floor balcony were suddenly full of lush green leaves, and birds were singing. “This is spring,” I told myself. “This is perfect. Hold on to this.”

And in that moment, I made a decision. I will no longer apologize for the fact that I am not OK. I will no longer apologize for the fact that I don’t fit into normal life, or that my journey doesn’t look like everyone else’s. I will accept myself as I am: searching, messy, not as together as I’d like to be, but moving forward anyway. I will try harder to open my palms in gratitude for all I’ve been given. And I will keep writing my story, flawed and sharp-edged as it is, always with an eye toward a quote my teacher ended our last memoir class with, from Abigail Thomas:

“Be honest, dig deep, or don’t bother.”

Until next time, friends.

The Ruthless Month.

“Run the old stuff down, run it out, toss the weight of trash in your heart into the fire. December is the ruthless month. Pick up all your heartbreak and fling it out the window. Call everybody. Make peace and move on. Let those who wish to linger, let them linger and grieve. They will run and catch up to you if you move on. You are the leader when it comes to joy. Move forward towards joy.”

– John Patrick Shanley

Exactly one week before my thirty-seventh birthday, I sat on a white stone bench on a terrace overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. I was alone. It was late November, two days after Thanksgiving, and off-season on Italy’s Amalfi Coast. I had found the spot earlier in the day when I’d been searching in vain for an open restaurant. I’d followed a sign advertising a (closed) café down a steep set of stairs, and discovered a garden terrace, flanked on all sides by deserted villas. It seemed too good to be true: such a beautiful place left unused, and still undiscovered by the gaggle of day-tripping tourists who had descended upon Positano that afternoon by bus.

But a few hours later, looking for a secluded spot to watch the sunset, I returned and found the terrace still vacant, save for one nosy tabby cat, who eyed me suspiciously before moving on. I settled in, opened the half bottle of Chianti I’d purchased at the Enoteca near the town square, and stared out across the water. I watched the descending sun bleed orange before it slipped behind a storm cloud (rain was forecast later that evening), and fixed my eyes on the island of Capri.

One week, I thought. One week I’d been in Italy, and one week ‘til I’d turn thirty-seven in London, before I headed back to see what life looked like in New York.

I’ve always treated birthdays like my own personal New Year, reflecting on where I’ve been and where I want to go, and this one was no different. Thirty-seven. I breathed in the sunset and the waves gently rippling on the surface of sapphire and jade green water, and thought about everything and nothing, all at the same time.

One week later, I rose early, drank a tall glass of water and a single shot of strong espresso, and boarded the Tube bound for Picadilly Circus. The plan was to begin my birthday by accompanying my friend Elena to her Saturday morning yoga class. I hadn’t taken a proper yoga class in years and found the prospect intimidating, but somewhere between the white-knuckle bus ride through the steep, winding highways of the Amalfi Coast and the Tube from Heathrow Airport, I promised myself that thirty-seven would be the year I did all the things that scared me. So, I paid my money, unrolled a yoga mat, and took a spot in the front row of class.

The instructor, a soft-spoken Polish man whose name “Rad,” was clearly short for something more difficult to pronounce, began class by asking us how our week had been.  As one woman released an audible sigh, Rad said, “Just observe your feelings and try not to judge them. Remember that the stories you tell yourself are just that: stories.”

Rad had just returned from a trip to Los Angeles. After class, I told him I lived there for many years, and had only recently decided to move to New York. Rad was an actor, and thought he might want to live in L.A., but after three years of traveling back and forth, he gave up his apartment in West Hollywood and returned to London. “Sometimes you have to go away to appreciate what you have,” he said.

I’ve gone away several times since I moved to New York. First to Montreal, then to a film festival in Miami, and now this latest trip, the longest one by far: eighteen days. If I’m feeling self-critical, I’ll tell you that my traveling is just a form of running away, refusing to settle in a new city where life is difficult. But if I’m feeling more compassionate, I’ll admit I’ve been navigating something profound, something I don’t yet fully understand. The best way I can describe it is that it feels like a revolution in my heart. It feels like finding forgiveness – mostly for myself – and letting go of old wounds. As Rad said that day in yoga class, the stories we tell ourselves are just that: stories. And I’m learning to transcend my old story and write a different one, one in which I’m strong enough to stand in my own skin, without apologies or regret.

Things happen in their own time. There’s a time to take bold and decisive action, and a time to be quiet and listen. And that’s largely what traveling has been about for me: listening. Observing my life from a distance, and gaining the perspective that only comes from meeting new people and discovering new places. From shaking up the every day.

I’m glad to be back in New York. I’m glad to be in the middle of the ruthless month. The trees have shed their leaves, the air is cold, and the days are short. But on the other side of all that’s dark is the promise of something new. A revolution. A rebirth. And a move towards joy.

Until next time, friends.

 

The great pumpkin.

I scanned the aisles of Target, looking for a last-minute Halloween costume . . . for my dog.  The selection was sparse.  There was an abundance of ‘wiener dog,’ outfits – essentially a hot dog suit for dogs – complete with ketchup and mustard and relish.  Kind of funny, but they were only available in small dog sizes.  Leo, a 45-pound Chow mix, was definitely a size large.

Pumpkin

After rejecting a paramedic outfit and a gunslinging cowboy, I finally settled on the only thing left that would fit him:  a giant stuffed orange pumpkin suit.

Leo hated it.  Hated.  Especially when we put it on him and paraded him down Pacific Coast Highway on Halloween afternoon,  a day that was too hot in the way that late October days in Southern California can still feel unnaturally like summer.  He dragged his feet, stopping to smell things, refusing to come along, all in his own quiet rebellion.  Even when passersby gushed about how cute he was – this 45 lb., fluffy, golden haired lion dressed in a pumpkin suit – Leo feigned indifference, as if to say, ‘How dare you humiliate me, humans.  I am a dignified creature, and in case you haven’t noticed, I already have a fur coat.’

Pumpkin 3

Happy Halloween, friends!

Why not us?

It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I’m madly in love with the Seattle Seahawks, and in particular, their superstar quarterback Russell Wilson.  Russell is a gifted athlete, an intelligent student of the game, and no one works harder or spends more time preparing than him.  He’s also a really nice guy.  But what impresses me the most about him is the ice water in his veins.  The guy is cool as a cucumber.  No matter what’s going wrong, no matter how many points his team is behind, he doesn’t get rattled.  He takes it one play at a time, he never gets down or discouraged, and he always believes he can win.

Russell practices visualization.  He imagines every possible play, every possible outcome in a game, and then he envisions how he will react to it.  In his mind, he imagines himself succeeding no matter what the scenario, no matter what the defense gives him.  Over the course of the season, as the Hawks marched toward clinching the NFC West and a playoff berth, there were plenty of doubters, haters and disbelievers out there who said that they could never win a championship.  After all, they never had.  But as someone who was told that he was ‘too short’ to play quarterback, Russell was used to having the odds stacked against him.  And in the face of all the doubters and the disbelievers, he rallied his team with a simple mantra:  “Why Not Us?”

Why not indeed?  I happen to believe that perception is reality.  I believe that the narratives we tell ourselves about who we are and what we’re capable of have a way of coming true.  Like Mr. Wilson, I believe in the power of our minds to affect the outcome of our lives.

I used to believe that tragedy was something that couldn’t touch me, that it was something unfortunate and horrible that happened to other people.  Then life taught me differently.  In less than nine months I witnessed my dear sweet mother lose her mind, spiral into self-destruction and die.  I witnessed my Dad’s rapid descent into the final throws of terminal cancer.  I witnessed my Grandmother’s diagnosis of advanced Alzheimer’s, where one minute she was there, the next she was gone.  And the sudden and far too young death of a close college friend.  In the span of about 9 months, someone I loved dearly was either sick, dead or dying.

I’ve had several months to process and heal from this incredible series of really bad things.  And while I’m better, I’m definitely not OK yet.  I’m still grieving, still processing, and still struggling.  But I’m struggling on the other side of it now.  The big bad wolf blew down my house, and I discovered that it was made of straw.  Now I’m forced to rebuild, except this time, I’m building with bricks.

In the same way that I used to believe that nothing truly bad could happen to me, I also believed that nothing amazing could happen to me either.  Deep down in the bottom of my heart, I never truly believed that I deserved to be full of joy, to design the life I wanted, to live boldly and without fear.  Instead I played by the rules, I did the ‘right’ thing, and I didn’t challenge myself to dream bigger.  I was content and complacent but not really happy.  Not fully alive.

It’s funny how having your heart shredded can shake you up and change your perspective.  Some of the worst things I ever could have imagined in my life have happened to me and I’m still here.  I’m not perfect, I’m struggling through it, but I’m here.  And being compressed by grief has, ironically, made me more open.  More open to try, more open to fail, more willing to risk it all.  Because when you’ve already lost so much, what’s the point of being afraid of losing?

So this is me, taking a page out of my favorite quarterback’s book.  If ‘Why Not Us,’ can bring the first Lombardi Trophy to Seattle in the history of the franchise, it’s a philosophy worth adopting.  I’m flipping the script on what I used to believe, and now I choose to believe that great things are not only in store for me, but that I deserve them.  Why not me?  Why not you?  Why not us?

Why not.

Until next time, friends.

The Lost Year.

It has been a year since I wrote and published my last blog.  A whole year.  Even as I write that, I find it impossible to believe.  Where has the time gone?

This is what it always comes down to – the reason I don’t write.  Or, the reason I do write, get frustrated, and give up:  the ‘where has the time gone?’ question.  Not that it’s hard to be honest about it, but more that it’s hard to be accurate about it; it’s hard to explain things in words because words don’t suffice.

There is so much of this last year that I only vaguely remember – it’s all shadowy and dark and covered in fog.  The year passed in a blur of very sad things.  Devastating phone conversations, funerals, insomnia, nightmares, more funerals, difficult decisions, sifting through personal belongings, trying to make the best of things, trying to figure out the right thing to do, trying to be strong for other people, trying to find the silver lining, trying to learn the hard lessons, trying to get through the holidays, the birthdays, and working, working, working.

After a string of very sad things, it has been five months since the last very sad thing, and I’m starting to believe that maybe I’m done for a while.  Maybe the universe has finally decided to give me a break, so I can stop holding my breath and start to heal, instead of just getting good at going through the motions, at faking it till I make it.

The first very sad thing was the biggest.  If sad things were measured on richter scales, this would have been the 9.0, the earthquake that triggered the aftershocks, the tsunami, the nuclear disaster.  The first very sad thing was the death of my mother, which happened 11 months, three weeks, and six days ago.  Life was far from perfect before the ‘big one’, but it was that particular very sad thing that catapulted me into uncharted territory, and set off the chain of months that I’m calling ‘The Lost Year.’

Amidst the shadows and fog, here’s what I remember from this last, lost year.  I remember an enormous full moon – astrologers called it a monster moon– lighting up the whole sky the night of my mom’s memorial.  I remember how broken my dad looked that day, and how frail he was.  My hair was darker than the last time he saw me, and he was confused and barely recognized me.   I remember visits to Olympia where it never stopped raining, and how bad my parents’ house smelled – like old people and cancer.  I remember alternately worrying about dad, and wanting to strangle him, because he made life so hard.  I remember feeling guilty for wanting to strangle him.  I remember thinking in spite of the terminal cancer diagnosis he was going to live forever, just to torture his children and see how much devotion he could squeeze out of us.  I remember my heart skipping a beat every time the phone rang and ‘Dad’ came up on the caller i.d.  And if it was a 206 or a 360 area code (both Washington) that I didn’t recognize:  immediate panic.  I remember the 11:30 p.m. call from Capital Medical Center – a nurse on the other end – fearing the worst.  ‘Your father’s o.k., Ms. Kelly, but he’s very worried about who’s taking care of his cat.’

I remember other calls too, with my grandmother, my mom’s mom.  How confused she sounded, how sad.  I remember talking to her frequently during my commutes between North Hollywood and Venice.  I remember that she was obsessed with a sewing machine that my mom had borrowed and she wanted it back.  I didn’t know where it was, knew I would probably never find it, and knew it wouldn’t really matter.  I remember the last phone call I had with her, on Thanksgiving Day.  I was in my car, heading out to hike Fryman Canyon.  She asked what I was doing for dinner.  ‘Going to a friend’s place,’ I said.  She thought that sounded nice.  She complained about the rain, and that dinner would be late because my aunt and uncle were preparing it, and they were always, notoriously, late.

Less than three months later, back in Olympia helping my sister go through my parents’ house and handle details surrounding our dad’s funeral, I went to see my grandmother in a nursing home, a place specifically designed to care for Alzheimer’s patients.  I remember thinking how all of the residents looked like children, how my grandmother looked like a child, with barrettes in her hair and painted fingernails.  How she knew me, but not really.  How she asked where I lived and when I replied, ‘Los Angeles,’ she paused, looked me square in the eye, and said, ‘Well, no one will look down on you for that.’  I remember the call I received from my 87-year-old grandfather, on a Saturday in April, when she died.  I was in tech rehearsal for a play and didn’t answer.  His voicemail said simply, ‘Another one’s left us, Sar.’  When I called him back, he said they’d plan a low-key memorial at my grandparents’ beach home on Puget Sound – the same place where my mom’s memorial had been held –  on her birthday in late July.  Said grandpa, ‘it’s too damn cold to do anything now.’

I could keep going.  I could tell you about the worst birthday party I ever had – that I stubbornly insisted upon having – even though two of my best friends were across the country at another close friend’s funeral, a funeral that I felt guilty for not attending, but couldn’t because it was too expensive to get there, and I had a work obligation that I couldn’t get out of, and it was my birthday for godssake and really, really I just couldn’t take one more very sad thing.

I could tell you that smack dab in the middle of The Lost Year, in between all the death and the sadness, that my identity was stolen and I spent four months fighting faulty credit card charges, filing police reports, getting documents notarized, and spending hours on the phone, and that I was almost glad for the distraction because while horribly inconvenient and time-consuming, at least it wasn’t another very sad thing.

But it’s all just too much, isn’t it?  This is why I’ve kept my head down and worked hard and blocked out entire sections of time for the last 360ish days.  Because it’s too much.  I’ve learned to lie because I’ve learned to hate the look in someone’s eye when I actually do decide to tell the truth about the events of the last year.  It’s a look of pity and helplessness, but mostly, a look that says there’s something wrong with me and they’re afraid they’re going to catch it.

I’m not an idiot.  I know what’s gone is gone, and nothing can change that.  I know that like it or not, I’m different.  Too many things have happened to shape me, and change me.  But I do want to feel like I’m in charge of my own life again, that I’m not just a person that bad things happen to.  I want to be happy again, in spite of all the very sad things.  And more than anything, I want to be able to express myself, and to be able to write from my heart, again.

So here it is, after one very long year.  Thanks for reading.

Until next time, friends.

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